When being there for a loved one with mental illness, it can be easy to cross the line from supporting to enabling. Enabling behaviors, in the context of mental health, are well-intentioned actions that may inadvertently sustain or worsen mental illness. They often involve preventing individuals from facing the natural consequences of their behavior or seeking the professional help they need.

Identifying and changing enabling behaviors can lead to more effective support that promotes recovery and well-being. If you are caring for someone struggling with a mental illness, here are some crucial enabling signs you need to know.

4 Signs You Might Be Enabling a Loved One’s Mental Illness

Recognizing enabling behaviors is crucial, especially when dealing with loved ones who have mental health disorders. Here are some specific signs that you might be enabling their condition.

1. Ignoring Problematic Behaviors

One clear sign of enabling is ignoring or downplaying behaviors associated with mental health disorders. 

For example, suppose your loved one has depression, and you consistently excuse their withdrawal from social activities by saying they just need more rest. In that case, you might ignore signs that they need professional help.

Similarly, suppose someone with an anxiety disorder avoids essential tasks due to their fears, and you always step in to complete those tasks for them. In that case, you might be enabling their avoidance behavior.

2. Shielding from Consequences

Protecting your loved one from the natural consequences of their actions can also be a form of enabling.

For instance, if a loved one with bipolar disorder spends recklessly during a manic episode and you continually bail them out financially without addressing the underlying issue, you are shielding them from the reality of their behavior.

Another example is if you constantly call in sick for a loved one with an eating disorder who is unable to work due to their condition instead of encouraging them to seek treatment.

3. Providing Financial Support without Boundaries

Financial support becomes enabling when conditions or boundaries are lacking. For instance, giving money to a loved one with a substance use disorder to cover their rent or bills, knowing that they might use their funds to buy drugs or alcohol, can perpetuate their addiction.

4. Neglecting Your Own Needs

You might be enabling if you find yourself constantly putting your loved one’s needs above your own to the point of neglecting your own well-being. 

For example, suppose you are skipping your therapy sessions or social activities because you feel you must always be available for a loved one with borderline personality disorder. In that case, you are neglecting your mental health.

While it’s natural to want to help, sacrificing your well-being is unsustainable and can lead to burnout and resentment.

The Impact of Enabling on Mental Health

Enabling behaviors can have significant repercussions for both the person with the mental illness and the enabler. Understanding these impacts is crucial for fostering healthier, more effective support strategies.

Effect on the Loved One

Enabling behaviors can have serious negative impacts on the mental health of your loved one.

Prolonging or Worsening the Illness

When you enable, you might be preventing your loved one from experiencing the full consequences of their actions, which can prolong their illness. For instance, if you continually cover for their missed workdays, they may not feel the urgency to seek professional help or make necessary lifestyle changes, leading to a deeper entrenchment in their condition.

Hindrance to Seeking Professional Help

If your loved one doesn’t feel the natural repercussions of their actions, they may not recognize the need for therapy or medication. For example, if you consistently resolve conflicts they cause due to their illness, they might not see the need to work on their behavior or attend counseling sessions.

Effect on the Enabler

Enabling behaviors not only affect the person with the mental illness but also take a toll on the enabler.

Emotional and Mental Strain

Constantly managing someone else’s issues can be emotionally exhausting and mentally draining. You might be continually worried, anxious, or responsible for their well-being. This can lead to chronic stress, anxiety, and even depression.

Possible Resentment and Burnout

Over time, you might resent your loved one for the continuous sacrifices you are making. This can damage your relationship and lead to burnout, where you feel overwhelmed and unable to continue providing support.

For example, suppose you are constantly bailing them out financially or emotionally. In that case, you may begin to feel unappreciated and burdened, which can erode your ability to provide adequate support.

How to Transition from Enabling to Supporting

Recognizing enabling behaviors is the first step toward providing adequate support. Transitioning from enabling to supportive behaviors can significantly impact your loved one’s recovery and your well-being.

Set Healthy Boundaries

Establish clear limits on financial support, such as only helping with essentials like groceries or bills and not funding unhealthy habits. Communicate that you will no longer lie or cover up for their actions. 

Encourage Professional Help

Approach the subject with empathy and concern. Use “I” statements to express your feelings without placing blame. For example, “I’ve noticed you’ve been struggling, and I think talking to a therapist could help.” Offer to help them find a therapist or accompany them to their first appointment if they’re apprehensive.

Resources for Finding Mental Health Professionals

Research local therapists, counselors, and support groups. Online directories like Psychology Today, local mental health organizations, and helplines can provide valuable information. Encourage your loved one to explore teletherapy options if in-person visits are challenging.

Fostering Independence and Responsibility

Ways to Promote Self-Sufficiency: Encourage your loved one to take small steps towards independence, such as managing their daily routines, attending appointments, and handling personal responsibilities. Support them in setting achievable goals and celebrate their progress.

Supporting Without Taking Over

Offer assistance and encouragement without taking control of their recovery journey. For example, instead of making decisions for them, provide guidance and allow them to make their own choices. Be there to support them, but let them lead their path to recovery.

Practical Strategies to Support a Loved One’s Mental Health

Effectively supporting a loved one with mental illness involves adopting practical strategies that promote their well-being and foster a supportive environment.

  • Engage in Active Listening. Give attention, maintain eye contact, and show empathy through nodding and verbal acknowledgments. Let your loved one express their feelings without interrupting or offering unsolicited advice. 
  • Show Empathy. Acknowledge your loved one’s struggles and emotions. Use phrases like, “I understand this is hard for you,” or “I’m here for you no matter what.” 
  • Educate Yourself. Understanding your loved one’s specific mental health condition symptoms, treatment options, and challenges they face can help you provide better support. Resources such as books, reputable websites, and mental health organizations can offer valuable information.
  • Raise Awareness. Share your knowledge with others who interact with your loved one, such as family members and friends. Raising awareness can create a more supportive network and reduce stigma.
  • Create a Positive Atmosphere. Encourage healthy habits like regular exercise, balanced meals, and sufficient sleep. Reduce stressors and create a safe and comfortable space for your loved one. Offer consistent encouragement and celebrate small victories.
  • Utilizing Support Groups and Networks. Encourage your loved one to join support groups where they can connect with others facing similar challenges. Sharing experiences and advice in a group setting can be immensely beneficial.
  • Building a Network. Help them build a network of supportive individuals, including family, friends, and mental health professionals. A strong support system can provide emotional stability and practical assistance when needed.

Self-Care for Caregivers

As a caregiver, your mental health is as important as the person you support. Neglecting your needs can lead to burnout, increased stress, and a diminished capacity to provide adequate care.

Recognize that taking care of yourself is not selfish; it’s necessary to be a compassionate and effective caregiver. Here are some tips if you want to take some self-care and seek support. 

  • Make sure to carve out regular time for activities that you enjoy and that help you relax. Whether reading a book, taking a walk, practicing yoga, or engaging in a hobby, these moments are crucial for recharging.
  • Don’t hesitate to seek counseling or join support groups for caregivers. Talking to a therapist can provide you with coping strategies and a safe space to express your feelings. 
  • Clearly define what you can and cannot do for your loved one. Setting boundaries helps prevent you from becoming overwhelmed and ensures you have the energy to provide consistent support.
  • Focus on self-care. Techniques such as mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation can help manage stress and improve mental well-being.
  • Maintain your social connections and seek support from those close to you. Sharing experiences and leaning on your network can provide emotional relief and practical assistance.
  • Continue learning about mental health. Learn about the specific challenges and strategies associated with caregiving for someone with a mental illness. Resources like books, online courses, and workshops can offer valuable insights and tips.

Wrapping Up

Supporting a loved one with mental illness is a journey that requires patience, understanding, and commitment.

Remember, seeking professional guidance when needed–for your loved one and yourself is important. Mental health professionals can provide the necessary tools and support for you and your loved one. Balancing support and enabling is not always straightforward, but you can create a more supportive and healthy environment with awareness and effort.